Reusable laundry balls and discs advertised on TV and via multilevel marketing sound like the perfect option for eco-conscious consumers. Just toss one of these contraptions into your washing machine, and your clothes will come out clean and fresh without having touched a drop of detergent. They don’t come cheap — a set costs as much as $75 — but manufacturers claim that they last for thousands of loads. Are these laundry aids too good to be true?

The claims: Ceramic beads inside the gizmos change the molecular structure of the water, forming charged molecules that are able to penetrate fabrics and force dirt out, a process similar to the way detergents work. Some manufacturers claim that laundry balls (or discs) break up dirt by emitting electromagnetic waves.

The facts: In 1999, the Federal Trade Commission, which works to prevent and help consumers spot fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices, issued a consumer alert warning that the science behind laundry balls was faulty — yet somehow the idea won’t die. Since then, numerous studies show that washing with laundry balls yields results no better than washing laundry with water alone. It’s possible that the handy little items could produce some peroxide (a.k.a. bleach) as well as charged molecules with greater penetrating power, but not enough to actually clean your clothes. And any claims that electromagnetic waves have an appreciable impact are exaggerated.

The conclusion: The only thing these gadgets will clean out is your wallet. Save yourself the disappointment and put that $75 toward detergent that’s good for you and the environment. Opt for fragrance-free, plant-based products instead of petroleum-based surfactants, which may contain harmful ingredients and deplete natural resources.

Story by Alisa Opar. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2006. This story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2006.